Re: Replicators, was Non Homuncular Memetics

Aaron Lynch (
Mon, 06 Oct 1997 21:08:05 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Mon, 06 Oct 1997 21:08:05 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: Replicators, was Non Homuncular Memetics
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Aaron Lynch responding to Mario Vaneechoutte:

>Mario wrote:
>> >Indeed biologists have focused on nucleic acids, for many good reasons.
>> >However, it is often forgotten that to replicate, a cell need not only
>> >inherit these informational molecules, but also some minimum of
>> >processors (enzymes) which can interprete and duplicate the DNA, and
>> >also membranes: DNA does not encode the formation of membranes de novo,
>> >it only encodes for enzymes which can synthetise new membrane taking
>> >existing membrane (in some distant way resembling the way DNA is
>> >replicated). The only independent replicator on Earth is the cell which
>> >can be regarded as a system of molecules forming a closed semantic
>> >circle. It is here that the basic dissimilarity with memes can be found:
>> >memes are merely used for information exchange between different
>> >processors. In opposition to genetic biology, these processors (I mean
>> >us) are not encoded by the information contained in memes.
>> As remarkable as "the cell" is, it is still an abstraction. As I pointed
>> out months earlier, it "replicates" only with respect to an abstraction.
>> You do not see "daughter cells" with the same number or placement of
>> organelles, enzymes, water molecules, etc. Much abstraction is involved in
>> deciding whether or not two cells are "the same" or "of the same kind." New
>> humans, in contrast, at least bear a number and placement of organs that
>> mostly resembles their parents (one parent more than the other, of
>Of course I agree, but I assumed this to be obvious: no matter can
>It is information that can be replicated. Or at least: more material
>instantiations of the same information can be made. A duplicate of the
>material gene is neither the same material gene (it is composed of other
>atoms). But, it is a duplicate which contains the same information as
>the model.
>> I don't recognize the phrase "closed semantic circle," but "the cell" is
>> certainly not a closed system. It is a material process, and as such is an
>> essentially open system: it MUST have matter and energy flowing in and out
>> in order to be "alive."
>Of course again, this is not what I meant. Biological life can only be
>understood by considering it as a giant process of interconnected
>chemical reactions. You can't understand it by trying to figure out what
>a living organism is on its own, in disconnection with the ecosystem it
>lives in. With regard to matter and energy, a cell is an open system, I
>certainly agree.
>With regard to information, to 'meaning' it is the only closed system:
>it contains information molecules which code for processors which can
>make more of the information molecules. This is what I would call a
>'closed semantic circle'. It is in this sense that I would consider the
>cell as the only kind of independent information replicator.
>As a matter of fact, at the level of the individual cell, it is
>difficult to distinguish between phenotype and genotype: what is the
>answer when I claim that the newly formed DNA-strands are in essence
>nothing but a phenotypic product?

I don't mind if you wish to assert that the cell is a unique or very
special kind of information replicator, as long as you do not assert that
it is the ONLY phenomenon for which the term "replicator" should ever be
used--given the clarifications I have made on what the term means with
respect to memes.

>> It does not do anything by itself, let alone
>> "replicate." To continue your project of forcing passive voice onto cases
>> of "replication," we see that cells do not "replicate," but "are
>> replicated" by sunlight, geothermal energy, geochemicals, water, etc.
>Well, I tend to disagree. See above. There is really a tremendous
>difference between what a cell (genes + enzymes + membranes + ...) does
>and what happens when memes are replicated. Also, in case biological
>information replication just needed a little sun etc., we shouldn't have
>that much problems in explaining the origin of the cell (i.e. of life)
>and we should see more spontaneous life.

I certainly agree that there are tremendous differences between cells and
memes. Different classes of replicators are generally not isomorphic to
each other. The lack of isomorphism between genes and memes, for instance,
is a good reason to avoid too much dependence on analogy and metaphor.

>> To flatly state that memes are merely used for information exchange ignores
>> the wide range of causal roles that a meme can play in generating new
>> copies of "the same" meme in different people. It is as if I had declared
>> that "plasmids are merely used for information exchange between
>> processors," ignoring, for instance, the fact that a plasmid can code for a
>> protein tube that propagates plasmids (including "the same" plasmid itself)
>> between cells.
>PLASMIDS. You touch my favourits. I compare them to scientific writings,
>which are also materialized (i.e. printed) pieces of information which
>can be recombined in other scientists (bacteria). They are also a nice
>example of horizontal spread of genes, while many assume that such
>things are only rare (and that genetics is mainly about vertical
>transmission and thus that - erroneously, I'd say - this is a major
>difference with memetics).
>One might object that bacteria do not communicate with each other like
>scientists do. But do scientists communicate directly with each other
>when they publish? As a matter of fact, they just send out (at random)
>their newly acquired information under the form of a written paper into
>the community of scientists. Some of these scientists will pick up some
>ideas of the paper and recombine these with ideas from other papers. To
>me, or rather from the information 'point of view', this looks pretty
>much the same way as information handling by bacteria plasmids.
>(I have to think about your interesting remarks on plasmids (memes)
>propagating plasmids (memes): one must consider such statements
>carefully, taking the point of view of the different 'interactors'.)

On an abstract level, plasmids spreading in cells exhibit perhaps the best
biological analogy to memes spreading in populations of humans. The spread
is both horizontal and vertical, and plasmids can either help or hinder
organism survival. Interesting that you are also comparing them to cultural

>> As for whether you say that humans are "encoded" by "the information
>> contained in memes," this strikes me as a matter of semantic taste, not
>> particularly crucial to the theory.
>I said that they were NOT encoded.

Yes, I understood the first time, and was merely stating that I don't
especially care because I don't refer to people being "encoded by memes"

>> I say that science is not BASED on building analog models, even though I
>> admit that analogies often facilitate new insights. What is the analog
>> model upon which biological evolution now DEPENDS? The inheritance of
>> wealth--whence the word "heredity"? I doubt very much that many
>> evolutionary scientists think about the inheritance of wealth in order to
>> analyze the evolution of enzymes, for instance.
>My excuses, but I do not understand what you mean with 'the inheritance
>of wealth'.

Inheritance of wealth is just the passing of property from the dead to the
living--usually from parents to offspring.


Life is a fine material process.

--Aaron Lynch

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